This gothic turn-based roguelike is as thrilling and awesome as it is demoralizing.
Patience and planning is a virtue in Darkest Dungeon. This is a game that makes you work hard for success, much like its other roguelike brethren. Even when you defeat bosses, clear quests, and delve deeper into the darkest of dungeons, heavy losses will assuredly engulf you. Everything from the dour aesthetic to the gloomy soundtrack reinforces the notion that your town of disposable heroes is doomed to fail more often than not. Somehow that feeling of challenge and often oppressing difficulty leads to a magnificent overall experience that, outside of some bouts of convolution and frustration, is memorable and engrossing.
The setup of this gothic-inflicted roguelike is that you inherited a haunted estate from an ancestor. That leads to the recruitment of various randomly generated characters from a variety of different classes that you can take into different parts of the estate to explore while fending off Lovecraftian fiends. Moving through these procedurally generated areas happens with your party of four slowly walking from a side-scrolling view. Rooms are connected by halls, both holding obstacles, items, and enemies. Running into enemies engages a battle in the same perspective. The turn-based system is relatively straightforward with a focus on buffs and debuffs. Each character has four abilities that have different effects and values, ranging from more straightforward attacks to complicated status-affecting moves. The specifics of the effects can be overwhelming, but an ever-present help menu and a variety of tooltips make it easier to digest. The battle system has a lot of depth thanks to its variety of classes and combinations. Different pairings can work well together in sometimes unexpected ways.
Stress is one of the core parts of the exploration and fighting that makes Darkest Dungeon stand out. Each character gains or loses stress as they wade through the dungeons, leading them to act erratically or gain a positive or negative affliction. From a gameplay perspective, this more or less forces you to use more than one heroic quartet, as well as make you adventure smarter, not harder. In between quests, characters can rest and lessen their stress by doing things like praying and going to a brothel. It’s a novel element that works so well with the Lovecraft style. The pain of a beloved character getting a negative affliction is harsh, though, because it can render that character almost ineffective. I admire the commitment to fatalism, but the crippling nature can get frustrating when the random-number generator goes against you a lot at once.
On the other hand, all of that helps create an aspect of the game that has been the difference between this being a neat roguelike and my latest obsession. The stress and various traits and afflictions that happen to your characters helps craft personalities. I’ve got this Leper named Hewse on my team that’s stuck around and he just loves going to that brothel so much he won’t destress anywhere else. Then he got syphilis. I cured him of his syphilis, and then we went out and fought some merpeople or something. Whether you’re like me and going for something a little more jokey or if you prefer your gothic video games a little more serious, some sliver or snippet of character-building is present for you to run with. Building up my preferred team of heroes has been a lot of fun, even if it always sucks when one gets slaughtered in battle out of nowhere or they wind up going crazy from stress and become almost unusable. Even when heroes die, new ones can be added after every excursion. They come with names and classes, but unfortunately the variety of names doesn’t seem to be that deep. I was able to field a four-person team of dudes with the same exact generated name. Names can be changed at any time, though, so you could always name that sex-loving Leper after your best friend if you’re so inclined.
In general, Darkest Dungeon is drowning in menus and mechanics. Especially at the start, it’s overwhelming. Your home base - a small hamlet with a few buildings in it - slowly unlocks over your first few excursions, which makes the onslaught of information and ideas a tiny bit less daunting. Soon enough, though, that town will have three places to heal and rest, two places to upgrade your heroes, and a few other buildings with various benefits and uses. It’s hard to make hay of it all, and after an hour or two of stumbling around, I consulted online to figure out some things that went over my head or weren’t as intuitive. Fortunately, this game has been out in some fashion for two years so the web has a wealth of wikis and beginner’s articles. It’s worth diving in at first with little foreknowledge, but if you get confused, don’t beat your head against the wall and instead go see what exactly you have to do to upgrade your abilities, equip trinkets, and deal with different diseases and afflictions.
The Switch version likely works best as a portable game, thanks to the great touch controls. The glory here is that the button and touch controls can be used interchangeably. As I’ve played, I mix and match the two methods, since some actions are smoother in touch while others are better with buttons. On the big screen, it’s still totally fine. The button controls are not bad, but navigating menus and the interface can sometimes be too much.
Even while wading through some minor issues, Darkest Dungeon is enthralling. Even if I crave sunshine and rainbows after spending too much time in this world, it sticks in the back of my mind and I idly think about what team I’ll put together to try to mount my next dungeon crawl. It’s a dark and gloomy game, but the overall blend of combat, exploration, and town management adds up to a fantastic gameplay loop that sucks away time as you try to outwit the deadly creatures and obstructions all around the darkest dungeon.